Her Blood is Gold: 20 Years Later
By Lara Owen, June 2012
In the spring of 1989 I was living on and off at my then partner’s cabin on the Western shore of Lake Tahoe in California. I was 34 years old and had given up my practice in Chinese medicine two years before, due to burnout and the desire to devote myself to my spiritual development for a while. I had been very ill the previous year after traveling in Nepal, and now I was spending time up at the lake convalescing. I needed peace and stillness. I was also
opening up to being a writer with deepening intent, and I kept a notepad with me much of the time. It was an unusual time in my life: I did not have to work and had few responsibilities.
My partner was a wise man who encouraged me to write and was happy to support me. Intuitively he understood that something of depth was percolating in me and he was both encouraging and respectful, leaving me to figure it out while protecting me from stress and obligation.
My mind had been softened and opened by the long period of illness and retreat, in which I had done many hours of meditation including Buddhist dakini practice (the dakinis—sky dancers--are feminine spiritual entities of wisdom and right action). I felt very connected to the lake and surrounding forest, an area sacred to
the Native Americans. Sometimes in my meditations by the lake
I would pick up a distinct impression of women going about their
business, and felt they were the spirits or the land memory of the
generations of women who for thousands of years had spent their
summers on its shores. Some years earlier, while I was still living in England, I had studied with a couple of Native American teachers and done several sweat lodges, and I felt an instinctual affinity with that tradition.
One May morning, sitting in the yard in the sunshine, there was a
moment of breakthrough. All the thoughts and experiences I had
been having for the past fifteen years about menstruation suddenly
coalesced. It was a true moment of inspiration, and within an hour
or so I had scribbled down four pages of detailed notes, which
were clearly the structure for a book. Even though at that time it seemed highly unlikely anyone would publish anything on what was still a taboo subject treated with disdain and disgust, I knew that what I had just written down was important. It quite literally seemed to vibrate off the page at me.
I had been interested in the menstrual cycle since my early 20's when I had begun to chart my cycle and use natural contraception. A decade of study and practice of Chinese medicine had opened me up to different cultural viewpoints, and I had specialized in the treatment of women in my work. Since learning how Native American women traditionally behaved during menses, I had been taking time out when I had my period, and had been exploring what actually happened if, like them, I slowed down and became still while I was bleeding. But this was my private reality--I had never considered writing about it.
Those four pages were the seed for Her Blood Is Gold. I began
to expand on my notes and fill out the bare bones from that initial
burst of clarity. The inspiration was so strong that it propelled
me through months, and then years, of research and writing.
Progress was rather slow: it was my first book and it took me a
while to figure out how to go about it. But I persisted and just kept
writing: nothing knocked me off track, despite my uncertainty and
ignorance about all aspects of the process of both creating and
publishing a book. Sometimes it felt like many more women than just me were writing the book, and that the spirits that surrounded me at the lake were having their say.
I began telling people that I was writing a book on menstruation.
Many looked embarrassed, but some were appreciative and
helpful. In those days, research still happened in libraries, and
I spent some fruitful hours in the library at Harvard where my
partner’s daughter was studying. Back in the Bay Area, contacts
arose synchronistically, and the idea for a section on other
women’s experiences developed. Somehow, I can’t remember
how, I was put in touch with Tamara Slayton, and in the fall
of 1990 spent an afternoon interviewing her at her home in
Sebastopol. I met Hallie Iglehart Austen at a book signing in Corte
Madera for her beautiful book Heart of the Goddess. We made
an instant connection, and I went to her home at Point Reyes
late in 1990 to interview her. Everything about these interviews,
and subsequent ones I did with other people—the meeting, the
journey there, the feeling tone of the day—happened in a great
atmosphere of numinous grace. I knew that what I was doing was
blessed and that somehow it would bear fruit.
I wrote to an acquaintance in England who worked in publishing
to tell her about the book and to see if she would be interested
in seeing the developing manuscript. She wrote back to say that
coincidentally, her small, spiritually-oriented company had just
been bought out by Rupert Murdoch’s burgeoning publishing
empire at Harper Collins and that around the time she received
my letter she had been told she was to come to the Bay Area to
meet her colleagues at Harper San Francisco. So could she and
her boyfriend come and visit me at Muir Beach while they were in
the area? I could hardly believe an editor with great contacts was
going to come right to my house. I expressed her the manuscript in
progress so that she could see it before she came. She liked what
she saw, thought HarperSF would be the best place for the book,
and spoke about me and the book to them. I duly had a meeting
with Barbara Moulton, an editor at HarperSF, in December 1990.
Barbara was encouraging, but said that as it was my first book,
they would have to see the whole manuscript first. So I carried on
Earlier that year, in the summer of 1990, Howard Rheingold,
then editor of the Whole Earth Review, had sent me an email
through the WELL, which I had recently joined. (The WELL, a
pioneering online community and social network, was a friendly
and welcoming place that nurtured writers and cutting edge
thinkers.) The writer and composer Rabar Sender Barayon had
seen something I had written there, (not on menstruation at all,
but a piece on my family), and had tipped Howard off that I was
a writer he should check out. On the hunt for new talent for the
magazine, Howard wrote to ask what I was working on. I emailed
him back, “I’m working on a book about menstruation. Shouldn’t
think you’d be interested.”
“Oh, but I am”, he replied straight away. “Send me what you’ve
got.” I had already extrapolated some of my material into an
essay that I had sent to a couple of women-focused magazines,
to no avail. It was called The Sabbath of Women. Howard loved
the piece, immediately understood the common sense of my
argument, and could see from it the depth of the conditioning that
kept women from their own power and self-acceptance. He helped
me hone the article into its best possible shape, and published it
the following spring.
The article provoked more feedback that anything WER had
published in years. Many people, men as well as women, wrote
to me. I followed up on these contacts and some of those stories
found their way into the book. One of the people who got in touch
with me after the article was published was Wendy Alter, whose
moving tale of her transformation from being a female astronaut
who suppressed her menstrual cycle to becoming a staunch
defender of its value is included at length in the book.
In the article’s customary little box about the author, it was
mentioned that I was writing a book on the subject. I was now
living in Portland, Oregon, (where I had gone to study process-
oriented psychology with Arnold Mindell). One day I came back
from attending a class to find a message on my answer machine. It
was from Michael Pietsch. “Hi Lara, hope you don’t mind, Howard
gave me your number. I’m an editor at Random House in New
York. Loved your article and wanted to know if you had a publisher
yet for your book. If not, I am very interested. Give me a call.”
As you probably know, getting a book published is not usually that
easy. And in fact it turned out not to be quite so straightforward.
Michael loved the whole concept and had faith in it without
seeing the full manuscript, so I decided to go with him rather than
following up on the vague promise of publication from HarperSF.
We were just about to sign a deal when a woman vice-president
saw the précis of the book and killed the deal, on the basis that
saying anything positive about menstruation would set feminism
back a hundred years. (Michael was so furious he quit Random
House and went to Little, Brown, where he has flourished ever
since, becoming one of the most influential people in American
publishing.) But thanks to Michael, I now had a New York literary
agent, and she sent the manuscript (now completed) to HarperSF.
They gave it to a professional reader to assess and her comment
was that they must publish the book and that it was very important.
By now, I also had a title. After putting in a series of fourteen-hour
days to finish the book, I had just written the very last word when
my boyfriend called me into the living room to see a documentary.
As I walked into the room, the narrator said, “They say her blood
is gold”… And I said, “That’s it! That’s the title of the book!” It was
Alan Ereira’s documentary on the Kogi people of Columbia, who
consider the gold in the earth’s crust to have been formed from the
menstrual flow of the Great Mother. It was one of those moments
in life when you know you are completely in the Tao. Luckily,
Barbara, my editor, understood that titles are mysterious, liked its
mystical and poetic flavor, and never tried to change it.
The wheels of publishing moved more slowly in those pre-digital
days, and it was customary for a book to spend eighteen months
on the journey between acceptance and publication. So it wasn’t
until April 1993 that the book was released in the US. In the
meantime, the UK rights were bought by Aquarian/Thorson’s, now
owned by HarperCollins, and the book was published in the UK a
couple of months after the US edition. So all came full circle.
I went to England to do some publicity and to visit my family, and
after a couple of days my mother said, “I have never seen you
so peaceful.” For several months I experienced a particular type
of serenity that I think comes from having nurtured a piece of the
collective unconscious mind, made it conscious, and then given
it to the world. For some time, rather dramatically, I wondered if I
might die, as I felt my life’s work had been done. Then I realized
there was a lot more to do, but it was tricky to figure out the next
Publicizing the book was a nightmare: my publicist at Harper
was helpful and understood the meaning of the book, but she
was powerless against a media that, for the most part, could only
respond to menstruation with ridicule or apathy. Remember that even as recently as 1993 the word menstruation was rarely spoken outside of a medical context and the term “the curse” was still in common usage.
I did several horrendous radio interviews before I realized
there was no point being laughed at by male talk show hosts
in Cincinnati or Las Vegas. It was too easy for the interview to
devolve into tampon comments and anti-woman “jokes”. The book
did get some great reviews and mentions in major newspapers
and magazines including Elle and The Chicago Times, but for the
most part the media ignored it.
Heartwarmingly, I received many letters, forwarded to me by
my publishers, from women all over the world, telling me how
grateful they were for the book and how it had transformed their
experience of womanhood, and these letters helped sustain my
faith that the book was reaching its audience and doing its job.
In the days before web sites, mass email, and Amazon reviews,
getting that kind of feedback was a significant boost to morale.
I gave some lectures and workshops in the Portland area, and
the following year moved to Los Angeles, where I began to try
to get a documentary made on menstruation. I wanted to focus on how different cultures experienced menstruation and i interviewed women living in Japan, France, England, and Orthodox Jews in LA who still visit the Mikvah near Pico and Robertson once a month to do their ritual cleansing. I visited the Navajo Nation, and was fortunate to be introduced through a contact to women who spoke with me in depth about the kinaalda, their beautiful menarche ceremony.
Despite being blessed with some early seed funding, this was in the days when independent filmmaking cost a lot more money than it can do today, and doing the rounds of television companies in the US and UK was incredibly frustrating. I worked in tv factual programming for several years, building up experience and contacts, but deal after deal fell through due to the fear of commissioning editors that the subject matter was too edgy.
By 1997 I was running out of both steam and funds when I met independent filmmaker Roberta Cantow, who was just embarking on what would, ten years later, become her documentary series “Bloodtime, Moontime, Dreamtime”. So I decided to shift my contribution from making my own film to appearing in hers, and gave her a long interview that features in the Moontime part of the trilogy.
I carried on counseling individual women on their menstrual health
and giving occasional talks when asked, but I didn’t feel it was
right to focus exclusively on menstruation in my own work. I had to
make a living and I had new ideas for books, and I could see that
other women were coming into the field and beginning to create
wonderful workshops and teach at the grassroots level. Meanwhile
I would bide my time, stop trying to push the river, and wait for the
collective to want more from me on the subject.
The book was sent in and out of print, as books often are. Each
time, there were gaps when new copies weren’t available, but,
unusually in the publishing business, a new publisher duly
appeared, again in an atmosphere of synchronicity and blessing.
Each time, the book was published through following the natural
thread of my life rather than through direct assertion (and I learned
much about how things happen for me by wasting energy trying to
get it into print between times).
The second edition was published by The Crossing Press after
the publisher met me at a dinner party in Santa Cruz, arranged by
a friend for that purpose. I added a new section on natural remedies for menstrual symptoms and also included some of the research I had done for the documentary. Unfortunately the book was renamed Honoring Menstruation by a publicist who insisted that for the newfangled Amazon searches a book must have the main theme in the title (not anticipating the increasing sophistication of searches and ignoring the goodwill and known factor of the existing name). Happily, the original title was restored by the third publisher,
Archive Publishing. That deal was struck after I met the publisher, Ian Thorp, on a group walk through a region of mystical sites in England organized by some mutual friends.
There were other helpful encounters. Dr. Christiane Northrup was
a friend of some friends of mine at Findhorn, and just becoming
widely known as an advocate for women’s health. In 1995, I sent
her a copy of the book. She loved it, and phoned to say she was
just on her way to LA to give a lecture and would I like to have tea
with her beforehand. I met her at her hotel room and we had a
wonderfully vibrant and enthusiastic meeting. She became a great
supporter and wrote the foreword for the subsequent editions of
When Her Blood Is Gold first came out I had thought it was five
to ten years ahead of its time, in terms of mainstream acceptance
of the concept that menstrual attitudes are reflected in women’s
self-acceptance and self-actualization, and that lifestyle choices
around menstruation have significant impact on physical and
mental health. I should have known I was being characteristically
optimistic, because it has been more like twenty, and there is still a
huge amount of work to be done.
Fast forward to 2012. Thanks to the pioneering and courageous
work of many women, the menstrual landscape shows signs
of significant development. We now have the Red Tent
movement growing in several countries, a beautiful initiative
inspired by Anita Diamant’s novel of the same name, erecting
Red Tents at festivals and gatherings for menstruating women
to seek quiet, seclusion, and community. Several moving
documentaries have been produced in recent years highlighting
the power of menstruation, and some wonderful books have been
published on this theme. Since 2000 The Red Web Foundation,
based in Northern California, has been gathering momentum, and
is now advising the US government on menstrual education.
And I find myself with renewed vigor and sense of purpose for
moving the field forward. I still counsel individual women, and
nowadays, having gone through the initiation of menopause
myself, I teach workshops on navigating this deep and often
complex passage. Most excitingly, I am currently involved in
establishing The College of Menstrual Education with menstrual
educators Jane Bennett, Jane Hardwicke Collings, and
Katherine Cunningham. This is a new international organization
based in Australia, created to teach schoolteachers,
healthcare professionals and women’s workshop leaders how to
give holistic and comprehensive menstrual education.
I remain enormously proud of Her Blood Is Gold and its
contribution to our collective pot of wisdom, rather in the way
one would admire and cherish a much-beloved child who makes
her way in the world with integrity. To extend the metaphor, this
child is now 20 years old, and becoming an adult who can have
a real impact as a part of the work of hundreds (fast becoming
thousands) of women to show how living the menstrual cycle
with awareness harmonizes body and soul and brings women to
true strength. May this timing symbolize the potent expansion of
our united efforts to enlighten the world about the beauty and
power of the act of menstruation--the sacred blood that brings
wisdom, creativity and new life.
PS: I wrote the first half of this piece in a hotel room in Bellac,
a small town in France, in the very early morning. An hour after
dawn, I went outside to walk my dog, and in the blue sky ahead of
me were five dancing clouds that reminded me of dakinis. In the
midst of them, a hazy cloud formed before my eyes, and within it
emerged one of those mysterious vertical rainbows that seem to
come at charged moments. A blessing for this work, indeed.
PPS More news on The College of Menstrual Education and its
programs very soon! For further information about
Lara Owen, click here.
[The views expressed are not necessarily those of The Red Web Foundation]